Because they’re so new, I’m always curious to talk to filmmakers who are actually using the Blackmagic Cameras in the field. Commercials, music videos and shorts are one thing, but a feature film, for me, is the real test of a cameras worth. How does it hold up shooting fourteen hours a day for twenty days in a row?
Recently, Los Angeles based filmmaker, Timothy Woodward Jr., put the Blackmagic Production Camera 4k (along with the other cameras from Blackmagic) to the test on the feature “Checkmate”. The action feature about an elaborate bank heist stars Danny Glover, Sean Astin and Vinnie Jones. I had an opportunity to talk with Woodward, now in post on Checkmate, about his decision to shoot on the Blackmagic Cameras and how he feels about the results.
HDSLR Shooter: Why did you decide to shoot your feature with the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, Production Camera, and the Pocket Cinema Camera?
TW: I was actually very hands on. My DP, Jonathan Mariande, was originally hesitant because it was sort of an experimental thing. We shot our previous films on Canon cameras. We’ve used the C100 for our A camera and RED Epics for action shots, and matching it up was a little bit of a challenge. Also, for me, I kept watching our movies and, as much as I enjoyed them, I could still tell when we shot with the Canon. It had somewhat of a DSLR feel to it, even though we crushed blacks and added grain and did other things. So I’d been following Blackmagic for a while, and when they released the Production Camera 4K, I thought we should take the opportunity to use it over the RED Epic, since this movie had a lot of action and explosions. That way we could use the Production Camera 4K for the same shots we were using the RED Epics for, only we’d be able to match the footage much more easily when we switched to 1080p on the Cinema Camera 2.5K for our dramatic scenes. Then we could still use the Pocket Cinema Camera as our third camera. Plus the price point, even when considering the cage, support gear and the complete buildout for three cameras, you’re talking about $11,000 in buying all three? It was amazing on price alone, so I thought “Why not?”
HDSLR Shooter: What lens system did you use?
TW: We used a lot of the Nikons. We were using Canon cinematic lenses in the past, and we started day one doing some test with the Blackmagic Camera. We actually liked some of the higher Nikon still lenses. We shot a lot with long lenses when possible, especially in the bank, to crush everything, to make people feel like they were closer. Especially days where we needed it to look like they had 50 people in it when we really had eight or nine, we used the longer lenses to really fill each frame. We’d shoot a lot on a 105, sometimes we’d go to an 85. The only time we used the 14 and the 24 was for one or two shots. Any time we could use the longer lenses we used them.
HDSLR Shooter: Because you’re and independent producer, I assume you’re working with investors. Was there any hesitation on their part that you were using a camera system that hadn’t really been tested yet?
TW: No, it’s one of those things where, with my team, they’re more or less partners who are involved in the company and own a part of the production company. So it’s not private investors, the money comes from their production company. Sowhen we told them we wanted to switch cameras they trusted my decision and knew I was going to stand behind it and make sure the film got delivered. And there’s always the question of “Can it meet quality control?”. At the end of the day I felt comfortable about the cameras, and they were excited to try something new just like I was.
HDSLR Shooter: Were you shooting RAW or ProRes?
TW: We shot a lot in ProRes to speed up the post process. Believe it or not, we actually did some tests in RAW. We dialed down the grains and the color correction was amazing, but we were getting really, really good images with ProRes, and you had enough information there to manipulate the colors enough to where the final product looked really nice. I’m a big fan of seeing what the product will look like during production, I don’t like to just leave it to post. I took the monitor color temperature down to 3200 if we wanted blues, we’d come in with blue gels and we really lit for what we wanted to see. That way we could cut down some moreon the post process.
HDSLR Shooter: Were you using a monitor to add LUTs while you were shooting, so you could see during filming?
TW: Absolutely! We used the Blackmagic Monitor. We tried a few others, but Blackmagic Cameras, unlike the Canons, must be able to read ProRes. So the only monitor we were able to find quick that would work was the 17” Blackmagic Monitor.
HDSLR Shooter: Tell me a little bit about your on-set workflow. Did you guys have a DIT on set managing your SSDs for the 4K? Talk a little bit about that.
TW: Yes, we had our DIT dump footage twice a day, once at lunch and once at the end of the day. We had one hard drive and a backup hard drive, as well as a master drive. So at the end of every day he’d have to dump to both of those, then again to the master drive. The SSD cards, at 480GB, when we were shooting in 1080p, we could shoot an entire day and they really wouldn’t fill up, even though we were dumping. With the 4K stuff, we would push the space limits of the SSDs because we were shooting a lot. For the most part though we really used one card per camera, with a 128GB card on standby if for some reason a dump ran long.
HDSLR Shooter: Are there any challenges you faced that you’d like to talk about to let people know what to watch out for?
TW: The Blackmagic Production Camera 4K gives you amazing images, it’s a phenomenal camera, and I’m using it again on an upcoming feature we’re shooting later this month. The one thing I would say is that it’s a camera you really want to light for. In daylight it’s fine, but if it’s a low light situation you really want to light properly for it. That way the Blackmagic will give you a much better quality image. The blacks are really nice, it doesn’t have the gray levels. For me, what we found is that going one stop under exposure is better if you’re shooting in the ProRes format. Don’t over expose it by one, under expose it if anything, because it does capture a lot of information that you can over expose in post, and you can really get a crisp image.
HDSLR Shooter: You’re not there just yet, but will you guys be using DaVinci for color correction?
TW: We actually just wrapped post on another film called “24 Hours”. We used DaVinci to color that film, and we will be using DaVinci to color “Checkmate” as well.
HDSLR Shooter: Were you spot checking some of the footage on set in DaVinci, just for a quick look on how it would turn out?
TW: Yeah, our DIT and Johnathan [Mariande], our DP, came to me with some LUTs and some other pre colored examples they’d done. Then we dropped in a few test colors and such, just to test things out and see. But as we were watching the dailies, on about day three we’d go back through day one’s footage and sort of check things out. We didn’t really do a lot more than that. I was interested in how the 4K was going to play with our post gear, and if there was going to be any hiccups or stutters. So we dropped some of the 4K footage into DaVinci to sort of get a feel for that. Otherwise we just kept up with the dailies.
HDSLR Shooter: I read that in many scenes, you were shooting both actors at the same time instead of doing dual coverage. Was it distracting for some of the more veteran actors on set that are used to shooting a certain way?
TW: A lot of times actors prefer to act against each other like that. But you still want to give them the treatment where you can provide them a stand in, especially if it’s not their coverage. But I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to catch a raw performance, which is better with both actors. So I told them I wanted to shoot them both at the same time, so we could really capture the moment. So with Vinny [Jones] we lit really red and Danny Glover’s side really blue as a representation of good and evil. We then shot Vinny handheld for that slight shake to provide a little bit of tension, and then shot Danny Glover on a tripod for stability. Then we’d swap after each take, so if the A camera was on a 105 and the B camera on a 50mm hand held, we would switch the positions of the cameras. We shot so much coverage with that, and the takes were so phenomenal, it was just amazing. So we weren’t like “Hey guys, go back to your trailers for an hour, get tired…” you know, it was them just acting and feeding off each other and acting in a real way, and it was good. The subtlety was just amazing, the looks, reactions, everything.
HDSLR Shooter: So you’re using the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K on your next feature as well? That’s quite the endorsement if you’ve chosen to shoot with it for a second time around.
TW: Yes, I can honestly say that overall, with the price included and everything else, that on my budget, to shoot with three cameras where I was super happy with everything is just not normal for me. I’m usually happy with sevnety-five percent of the footage. We went back through and were just wowed by the Blackmagic’s footage. It’s just very, very clean. The blacks are just very dark, there’s so much separation between the subject and the background, you focus on it immediately. It was phenomenal. It can be misleading for a lot of people who rely on the back monitor. I would say cut the back light down to 75%, because that monitor can be misleading if you have the back light on at 100%. What you’re seeing is not what you’re going to get if it is all the way up. You also want to have external batteries. On our rigs we had external because the battery may last 45 minutes max. So be sure to have an external battery for sure.